The French Labour Movement on the Hot Seat
From the pension reform attempt to the coronavirus crisis, the events of recent months have revealed a trade union movement that is weakened but still fighting hard to break with increasingly apparent 'neoliberal disorder'. Where does the French labour movement head from here?
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The anti-pension-reform movement was still going strong when the decision was taken to put France into lockdown. Though the government sought to use the coronavirus as an opportunity to rush through its pension reform project, in the end it had to desist from this power grab. At his first press conference setting out the terms of the lockdown on 16 March 2020, France's President Emmanuel Macron announced that the government would be suspending all ongoing reforms, "starting with the pension reform", in order to focus on tackling the epidemic. At the time of writing, there was even talk within the governing majority that it might be jettisoned entirely.
While yesterday's concerns may seem remote given the crisis we are currently experiencing, the movement that took place over the winter of 2019-20 still has topical resonance. The centrality and the weaknesses of French trade unionism, which that movement highlighted, are now being further exposed by the coronavirus crisis. Caught between the contradictory demands of remaining in lockdown and keeping the economy moving, many workers are turning to trade unions.
The unions are at the forefront of informing workers about their rights in these extraordinary circumstances and backing their demands for minimum health and safety conditions. They have helped many workers exercise their right to alert employers about unsafe working conditions, issued strike notices, and in some cases taken legal action to force employers to safeguard their workers' health, as illustrated by the ruling against Amazon France, for example. The unions' role is all the more essential given the dearth of parliamentary opposition resulting from the disruption to ordinary political business. However, the situation has also exposed their fragility, with many employers using the disarray caused by the epidemic as an opportunity to bend the rules of the Labour Code and bypass the unions, something they are being encouraged to do by the government.
Against this backdrop, revisiting the anti-pension-reform movement seems all the more important since the way that it developed, following in the wake of previous mobilisations yet diverging from them in certain key respects, opens up new avenues for thinking about a redeployment of the trade union movement and the place of work in our society.
A long history of resistance
The mobilisation against the establishment of a 'universal pension system' is part of a long history of resistance to the restructuring of French capitalism, punctuated by major social movements in 1995, 2003, 2006, 2009-10 and 2016-17-18. Research into the convergence of Europe's industrial relations systems reveals that France, despite the central role of the state in its political economy, has undergone similar transformations to other European countries, thereby opening a French pathway to neoliberalism (Baccaro, Howell, 2017).
Since the 1980s, state interventionism has been redirected towards decentralising collective bargaining, making employment rules more flexible and developing non-union forms of worker representation. Successive reforms have significantly weakened unions' influence in the field of social protection, strengthening state oversight of welfare institutions and, in the name of tackling public deficits, encouraging alternative, financial market-based solutions in the areas of healthcare and pensions.
As a senior civil servant turned investment banker, straddling the worlds of politics and finance, Emmanuel Macron embodies this 'modernising' agenda, which for decades has had the united backing of France's governing and business elites, whatever their political persuasion (Amable, 2017). So while Macron won the 2017 presidential election by distancing himself from his predecessor, the socialist François Hollande (despite serving as the latter's deputy secretary general and subsequently minister of the economy), it comes as no surprise that he has not only remained committed to the reform agenda but also accelerated its implementation.
The pension changes were set to round off a whole series of reforms, following on from the autumn 2017 decrees on labour law, which were condemned by unions as the 'XXL' version of the Loi Travail (Labour Act) passed in spring 2016, the scrapping of the special status for railway workers, reforms to unemployment insurance and vocational training, and legislation to transform the civil service (using 'managerial levers'). By introducing a universal points-based pension system managed by the state, the aim was to permanently eradicate the notion of pensions as a wage component collected in the form of social security contributions, and redefine them as a benefit paid by the government according to its financial means. As such, this fundamentally political reform would have completed the dismantling of the social democratic structure established at the time of the Liberation (Friot, 2017).
A distillation of 25 years of social struggles
The mass strike by employees of the Paris public transport operator RATP on 13 September 2019 heralded an extraordinary wave of social unrest. One of the things that set this movement apart was its ability to distil 25 years of social struggles. Kicked off by a joint-union day of action on 5 December, it combined the renewable strike on public transport seen in 1995, the sorts of shock tactics by cross-sector rallies that were common throughout the 2000s, and a visceral rejection of the government inspired by the grassroots unrest of the 'Nuit debout' movement in spring 2016 and the 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) protests in winter 2018-19.
The historic mobilisation of railway workers and RATP staff, who went on strike for almost two months, gave the movement long-term momentum and created the extraordinary atmosphere that provided the backdrop for action in other sectors. Lawyers, for example, despite themselves being on renewable strike, trialled forms of collective defence for their most vulnerable clients, such as undocumented migrants. Higher education and research staff, particularly those in precarious employment, protested against not only the pension reform but also yet another reform aimed at the commodification of universities, culminating on 5 March in a general strike across the higher education sector.
The movement also inspired various original initiatives, such as the decision by a number of academic journals in the humanities and social sciences to declare themselves 'on strike', and action by digital workers to disrupt the normal functioning of online publication platforms. The feminist and LGBTQI+ movements, along with groups of 'gilets jaunes', also joined in with the mobilisation, taking part in demonstrations under their own colours.
The centrality and weaknesses of trade unionism
In a rebuff to those who had somewhat prematurely proclaimed, at the time of the 'gilets jaunes' movement, that the forms of protest spawned by industrial society, namely strike action and trade unionism, were in crisis, this movement reaffirmed the centrality of these forms of protest in contemporary social conflict. However, at the same time it laid bare their weaknesses. While the conflict was among the longest and most socially diverse in our recent history, it was probably not one of the biggest in terms of the number of people demonstrating and striking. The hard line taken against street protests, which became harder still after the state of emergency was declared following the Paris and Saint-Denis attacks in 2015, has made such action a lot costlier. As for strikes, while figures are not yet available for the most recent period, official statistics suggest a sharp long-term decline.
In 1976, there were 4,000 individual days not worked due to strike action ('journées individuelles non travaillées' or JINT) for every 1,000 employees in the business sector. Since the 2000s, this metric has rarely topped 100 days, with the highest being 318 in 2010, when the previous wave of anti-pension-reform protests took place. Even the 2016 movement against the Loi Travail was relatively modest in terms of strikes, with 131 JINT for every 1,000 employees (Higounenc, 2019). In this respect, France is in step with the rest of Europe: the increase in political strike action, targeting governments and their neoliberal policies, is set against the backdrop of a decline in economic strikes, i.e. those aimed directly at employers and focusing on more immediate issues such as wages, employment or working conditions (Gall, 2013).
This mixed picture of strike activity argues for an emphasis on the structural factors that have curtailed the widespread adoption of work stoppages, rather than on the political choices made by union headquarters. Indeed, both qualitative and quantitative studies suggest that going on strike almost always involves union mediation. However, with trade union density averaging 11%, the chances of having union infrastructure to assist with mobilisation are very unevenly distributed among workers (Pignoni, 2016). Strike action therefore tends to become the preserve of the most stable groups within the workforce, those whose employment conditions remain relatively good and which still recognise trade union power. Examples include the transport and education sectors, around a fifth of whose workers are still union members and which were at the heart of last winter's strike.
However, this is not to say that the rest of the workforce has sunk into political passivity. In fact, one could further posit that one of the reasons that the winter 2019-20 strike did not snowball, and in particular that the private sector did not join in, was because the latter had already turned out in force the previous winter during the 'gilets jaunes' protests. Research into the yellow vests movement has highlighted an over-representation of working class protesters, and in particular of sectors that are not usually very mobilised or politicised, people from suburban areas, small businesses, atomised human-services workers or simply people cut off from the world of work… all sectors and groups with a minimal trade union presence (Collectif, 2019; Collectif Quantité critique, 2019).
It was this distance from trade unionism and its repertoire of action – such action being simply impracticable in some cases (how can workers at small businesses go on strike, or people working alone, rather than as part of a team, in sectors such as home care?) – that gave the movement an action repertoire all of its own, most notably the occupation of roundabouts. As during the urban riots of 2005, the lack of union supervision also resulted in a tendency for demonstrations to turn into riots.
The twofold challenge facing unionism
Analysis of the pensions conflict is therefore enriched by being viewed in the context of a wider cycle of protest, starting in 2016 with the movement against the Loi Travail. This cycle has seen periods of union centrality interspersed with others in which unionism's social representativeness has been challenged by movements such as 'Nuit debout' and the 'gilets jaunes' (Yon, 2019). In this regard, the social conflict of recent times is indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of trade unionism in France. While the unions, and principally the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), remain key actors in social movements, their structural and organisational power has nonetheless declined in parallel with their ability to represent the workforce in all its diversity. The period 2016 to 2020 has thus revealed a twofold challenge facing unionism.
The first challenge is to rebuild a representational capacity tailored to the new world of work that has emerged from decades of neoliberal transformation, something that will require an ambitious process of unionisation. That said, even the most sophisticated expansion plans will not be enough if unions do not at the same time get better at tackling neoliberalism and ultimately defeating it. That is the second challenge. However, there is a paradox here. Whereas mass social mobilisations are becoming increasingly political, in the sense that they are engaging ever more forcefully with the neoliberal agenda, the unions themselves are becoming less and less so as their scope of action tends to be limited to the increasingly autonomous sphere of industrial relations (Giraud et al., 2018). While recent social movements have demonstrated their ability to punish those who enact neoliberal reforms, they have so far failed to galvanise a social and political coalition capable of attacking the very structures of the neoliberal state.
The coronavirus crisis has only amplified the urgent need for a progressive alternative. Some claim that the pandemic has sounded the death knell for neoliberalism, and even Macron, in his speeches, seems to have a new-found appreciation for the merits of the welfare state. The pension reform is likely to be abandoned, the protest movement followed by the lockdown measures meaning that the government has missed the window of opportunity to include the reform in its timetable of business. Moreover, the talk of 'key sectors' has led to a complete reappraisal of the values and symbolic hierarchies of work, highlighting the irreplaceability of front-line staff and the literally vital role played by nurses and care workers, supermarket staff, human-services workers and teachers. But as a number of analysts have pointed out, many of today's key workers are yesterday's 'gilets jaunes' and employees hitherto covered by special pension schemes, so this new awareness is attributable in part to the social mobilisations that produced, and brought into the public arena, the political categories that enable us to see the pandemic as an indicator.
However, there is no guarantee that this symbolic shift will translate into politics. Emerging from the crisis could prove to be a gruelling process: the emergency measures have seen government and social security debt soar to record levels, and the right and employers' organisations are fearmongering about impending job losses and calling for a deepening of the neoliberal policies of fiscal austerity and dismantling of labour law. The fact that neoliberalism is so deeply engrained in government thinking makes this outcome all the more likely. To prevent this worst-case scenario, the progressive forces of social and political opposition must converge around an alternative approach.
In this respect, the coalition of NGOs and trade unions centred around the hashtag #PlusJamaisCa (Never Again), with their call for "urgent and long-term action on social and climate justice", is taking a step in the right direction. Uniting the anti-neoliberal grassroots and environmental movements with the main union actors in the opposition to pension reform, it has recently expressed itself open to a dialogue with the political forces of the left on the means of "breaking with the neoliberal disorder". If such a dialogue were to materialise, it could end a cycle of union depoliticisation that has paved the way to defeat for far too long.
A political science and sociology graduate, Karel Yon is a CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) researcher at the IDHE.S laboratory of Paris Nanterre University. His work focuses on trade unionism, social movements and labour policies (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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 This article includes analysis contained in a number of other texts (Yon, 2019, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c). While dealing with trade unionism 'in general', in reality it is concerned with unionism as an operator in social conflict and disregards those fractions of the trade union world that have dissociated themselves from the movement. The movement as seen through the prism of the different union lines merits an analysis all of its own. On trade union pluralism in France, see (Giraud et al., 2018).
 The Prime Minister announced the triggering of the urgent parliamentary procedure to expedite the passage of the bill at the end of an extraordinary Council of Ministers meeting on 29 February, supposedly devoted to tackling the pandemic.
 The government passed a Health Emergency Act on 23 March, followed by decrees, allowing employers to deviate from the Labour Code in order to extend employees' working hours or require them to take leave. Remarks by the Minister of Labour, the suspension of industrial tribunals and the non-disclosure instructions given to labour inspectors in the field were unanimously condemned by the unions as encouraging arbitrary behaviour by employers.
 Quoted from the letter sent to political groups by the petitioners, which include the French branches of Attac, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Confédération paysanne, CGT, FSU, Union syndicale Solidaires and Fondation Copernic.